Find out what Scleroderma is, how it is treated, and the search for a cure.

Scleroderma is a rare autoimmune disease that causes a hardening of the skin. It is more four times more common in women than men. Scleroderma usually strikes those of middle age but has also been diagnosed in children and the elderly.

In its less severe form known as Localized Scleroderma, it stays only in the skin and is not life threatening. Systemic Scleroderma, however, can spread throughout a patient's system, causing not only damage to the skin but also damage to the lungs, muscles, heart, kidneys, and the digestive tract, along with many other internal organs. Systemic Scleroderma can also lead to death. Symptoms of Scleroderma can vary from patient to patient and can include a thickening of the skin, joint pain and swelling, fingers and hands becoming extremely sensitive to cold, unexplained weakness, tiredness, weight loss, digestive problems, and in more severe cases symptoms involving the kidneys, heart, or lungs.

Although there is no known cause of Scleroderma itself, it is known why the skin hardens. Extra collagen is produced and stored in the skin, which causes stiffness and hardening that leaves hands almost frozen in a claw-like position. Most patients who develop these symptoms become unable to perform basic tasks such as dressing themselves or doing the other things that most of us take for granted in our everyday lives. The disease can disable a person and rob him/her of independence. For this reason, Scleroderma has been called the disease that turns people to stone.

Scleroderma can be difficult to diagnose. In its early stages, it can resemble many other diseases and conditions, including arthritis and lupus. Because of this, many patients go through a time when no one seems to know exactly what is wrong. This added stress can sometimes cause even more problems that have to be dealt with, in addition to the symptoms caused by the illness itself. And since Scleroderma is so rare, most doctors have never seen a case of it before, making a proper diagnosis much more difficult. To correctly diagnose the disease, rheumatologists and other specialists are usually consulted, and blood and other tests are performed that narrow down the possibilities. With an examination of the skin, along with the results of these tests, a diagnosis of Scleroderma can be made. A diagnosis, however, only brings up the new problem of how to treat the disease.

There is currently no cure for Scleroderma. And, unfortunately, there is also little that can be done for sufferers of the disease besides treat the symptoms. Physical therapy and exercise can help keep the skin more flexible; smokers are advised to quit because smoking aggravates the disease, and those who suffer from extra sensitivity to cold can wear extra layers of clothing and keep their hands covered. Some drugs may also be used in the treatment of the symptoms to relieve the swelling caused by Scleroderma. Also, immunosuppressive medicines, which slow down the body's immune system and its production of collagen can be used. But, as stated earlier, these only treat the symptoms of Scleroderma. None of these have proven to slow down or lessen the effects of the disease.

Although much more is now known about Scleroderma than in the past, it is still a disease with many more questions than answers. Research is ongoing and several organizations, such as the Scleroderma Foundation, fund this research. They also help raise awareness of the disease. Over the last few years, many magazines and television shows have covered Scleroderma. This awareness brings in more dollars for research, which in turn brings hope in the search for a cure and improved treatment options. Hopefully, the next few years will bring a breakthrough that will benefit those who have been diagnosed with this devastating disease.

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